Back before we knew that Garrison Keillor was terrible. If you listened to A Prayer Home Companion, you knew you were at the halfway mark when he would intone in his baritone voice about Powder Milk Biscuits, that would give shy people the strength to get up and do what needs to be done, and then the band would play. It was a silly little joke—biscuits in fact do no such thing. But I find myself thinking about where one does get one’s strength. We are in this moment, after so many other moments, of anxiety and tension: another nail-biter of an election, weeks of antisemitic vitriol being spouted by people who we had hoped would know better, with terrible outcomes, like the bomb threat called into Barrack Academy in Philadelphia this past week. a time when there is so much need in our community. Friends, the biscuits are starting to sound pretty good.
Often, I think we imagine that strength is some special wellspring within us, or comes from encouragement from the outside, and that strength has to be loud. That courage has to be big. That it has to be chutzpah-dik. And our society encourages, even demands that. That the only way to overwhelm bad speech, or bad actions, is to literally drown them out, overwhelming them. But we also learn that ometz lev, that inner strength that the rabbis spoke of, does not have to be violent, or intense. It can, in fact, be the opposite. The yelling and screaming and fulminating may not be a sign of strength, but of weakness, while the person who accepts what is happening in our world, without embracing it, can better resist the forces of darkness that we see.
In our parasha, after Sarah’s death, which we’ll explore more tomorrow, and Rebecca’s arrival, we learn that Abraham also dies, and his sons, Ishmael and Isaac, come together and bury him, and God blesses Isaac. This could be a moment for the two half-brothers to rehash their old hurts and wounds, but it isn’t. It could be a moment to dwell on all the bad that has happened in Abraham’s life, all the loss and displacement he’s experienced, but it isn’t. It’s a moment of peace and acceptance, a celebration of long life, and a moment of blessing. It is a moment of strength of Isaac and Ishamael, for Rebecca, and all of us. Likewise, we need to accept what is happening in our world—not turn away from it, not smother it, not just rail against it—but accept it, so that we can resist it with strength. Which means taking those feelings we have about the state of the world—our sadness, our grief, our disappointment, our anger, and direct them into action—against hate, against poverty, against inequity. For only in acceptance can we see what is really before us and do the work of repairing the world. Let us, then make Isaac’s blessing our own, so that we can do what needs to be done.